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Beyond ‘I Love You’: 5 Tips For Navigating Romance in Japan

Ready for Valentine's Day and its alter ego White Day? Want to let that special someone know how you feel? Here are five ways to tell it from your heart.

By 5 min read

It’s the season of romance in Japan. However, while men are typically expected to shower women with gifts and affection in the western world on Valentine’s Day, the roles are reversed in Japan. It’s White Day, on Mar. 14, when men return the favor.

It’s customary for Japanese women to profess their love through honmei choco, ornate handmade chocolates or expensive boxes of sweets. Women will also, sometimes begrudgingly, gift male coworkers with mini boxes of giri choco, or obligatory chocolates.

When it comes to compliments, you’re treading on dangerous territory with kawaii.

On White Day, men return gifts of okaeshi choco, or returned favor chocolates, and reciprocate their feelings of affection with a sanbai kaeshi, or a gift that is expected to be three times the value of the first one. Yeah. It gets complicated.

To help you out, we’ve rounded up some creative and romantic ways to say “I love you” using contemporary Japanese that go beyond the textbook but won’t make you feel too cheesy.  Just as important, we’ll also share some tips on what not to do.

1. Compliments

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Try not to sound like an idiot.

Don’t

When it comes to compliments, you’re treading on dangerous territory with kawaii (cute). Say it too much, and it turns into a hollow word. Japan may be the land of kawaii, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner identifies with all things childish and girly. Don’t use kawaii to let your special one know what you really adore about them.

Do

Instead, level up your use of kawaii by using it to describe your partner’s actions, not looks. Is there something about the way they touch their hair or get so lost in concentration? Let them know how much you love their little quirks with shigusa ga kawaii, or roughly saying that a particular gesture is cute.

E.g., Kami wo sawaru shigusa ga kawaii or “I like the way you touch your hair.”

2. Showing affection

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Don’t act like an idiot either.

Don’t

In Japan, kabedon (literally, kabe, or wall, and the “don!” or “thud!” of someone hitting it) is the act of sandwiching the target of your romantic interest between you and a wall. This scene plays out in countless TV shows, anime and manga. 

A tough guy character presses his unsuspecting love interest up against a wall, leaving the target frightened yet inexplicably attracted to this bizarre display of masculinity. No matter what the world of Japanese media would have you believe, kabedon is a major no-no. Encroaching on someone’s personal space is rude and downright creepy.

Do

If you really feel the urge to recreate a scene from your favorite manga, hold hands with your special someone on a chilly day and put your clasped hands in your coat pocket. Romantic and practical.

3. Saying “I love you”

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Probably not something you want to say on a first date.

Don’t

There’s no need to go overboard memorizing romantic lines to help you profess your love in Japanese. What may work for Tanaka-san in your textbook might not go over well in real life. Worse — what if you mix up your lines and end up offending instead of wooing?

Do

The biggest hurdle of professing your love in Japan may no doubt be linguistic. Perhaps aishiteru, or “I love you,” feels too intense at this particular point in your relationship, while suki da yo, or “I like you,” can come off as juvenile. 

How to cross that hurdle? Go native! Profess your love in your native language. Even if you can’t translate your feelings directly, honesty is always appreciated.

4. Making it official

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“Who needs labels?” Everyone.

Don’t

A tried and true staple of Japanese romance is 告白こくはく (kokuhaku). This is the act of directly confessing your romantic interest along the lines of 好きだ。ってください (Suki da. Tsukiatte kudasai) or “I like you. Please go steady with me.”

That doesn’t mean you have to adhere to this “rule.” After all, if it feels awkward to you, it will probably come across that way. Talk about a mood killer!

Do

If you want to know where the relationship is going, don’t beat around the bush — just ask: “わたしたちってどういう関係かんけい? “Watashi tachi tte douiu kankei?” or “Are we dating or not?” Read between the lines, but accept rejection graciously.

You may think you’re fighting for love, but to her, her friends, her parents and everyone else in the world you’re being creepy and probably ストーカー行為こうい (sutoka-koui, or stalking).

5. Proposals

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Probably also not something you want to do on a first date.

Don’t

If you’re proposing on the most romantic day of the year, then beware of old-fashioned lines like ずっと味噌汁みそしるつくつづけてください (Zutto miso shiro wo tsukuritsudukete kudasai) or “Please continue making miso soup for me for the rest of my life.”

Not only is it unromantic, but it’s also incredibly dated. Even if your partner truly enjoys cooking, don’t conceal your proposal by asking the love of your life if they will cook for your everyday. They might even wonder whether you’re joking with them.

Do

Whether you decide to propose with a flash mob, over a romantic dinner or by just casually dropping it in a conversation, seal the deal with a proposal that complements and is straight to the point. That doesn’t mean you can’t be sappy and romantic. Try something like その笑顔えがお一生いっしょうていたい 。結婚けっこんしてください (Sono egao wo ishho miteitai. Kekkon shite kudasai) or “I want to see that smile of yours every day for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?”

Now that you know how to navigate romance in Japan by using phrases that won’t have you sounding like a robot or a character from an old Japanese TV show, it’s time to put these lessons to the test. Let us know if you’ve found success with these tips or have a few of your own to share.

Wishing you the best in your romantic endeavors! (すえながくおしあわせに! Suenagaku oshiawase ni! )

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